Here's the science behind mental paralysis, and what you can do about it.
At some point, most of us have experienced a mental block or “paralysis” that keeps us from going through with our plans, making decisions, or knowing how to react to situations that arise. These blocks can affect us personally or professionally—in our jobs, relationships, personal goals, etc. We want to take action and move forward, but fear, anxiety, and negative thoughts get in our way.
The pandemic that we are living through certainly doesn’t help. The prospect of an uncertain future, the fear of going out of our homes, the feeling of insecurity, and the frightening statistics can cause even greater mental paralysis.
Why, if I want to do something, do I freeze up? What has made my mind my own enemy?
The human body is wise and made for survival, so it reacts defensively to any stimulus perceived as a risk. When a person experiences a psychological block of this kind, it’s often the result of a protective instinct reacting to an emotion or a thought that is perceived as “dangerous.” Our mind automatically tries to keep us away from it. So when our will persists in its rational desire to carry out an act, and our survival instinct tries to stop us from it, that’s when we experience a sort of paralysis.
The situation becomes even more complicated when we don’t understand what’s happening to us, and our desire to carry out that task or activity becomes even stronger. This makes us feel anguished and even more paralyzed, and in the end, we still don’t achieve our goal.
Mental paralysis could affect, for example, the many people who are currently seeking active employment. The prospect of ongoing confinement that forces parents to stay home and take care of children, the fear of businesses closing down, the worry that no employers are hiring right now, etc., easily can cause a person to abandon the mission of finding a job. If this is your case, before judging yourself as a lazy or incompetent person, ask yourself this question: What is my mind trying to protect me from?
Origin of mental blocks
- Fear: At the base of every mental block is fear that may be disguised one of many ways. It’s important to go to the source of this fear and to face the problem with the right help.
- Low self-esteem: The image that we have of ourselves will condition our capacity to face both daily tasks and more complex challenges. If, since childhood, you’ve been telling yourself, “I’m not very intelligent,” “Other people do this better than I do,” “I’m clumsy,” etc., you’ll be more likely to suffer this kind of mental block. The origin of this lack of self-esteem lies in not appreciating our own progress and abilities, and in not understanding our own mistakes and learning from them.
- Being too demanding of ourselves with unrealistic ideals: Sometimes we may have an unrealistic idea of our own abilities and exaggerated expectations for the results we want to achieve. If, during childhood, your parents were constantly telling you how amazing, smart, and exceptional you were, it may have made you internalize a need to meet their expectations. Children who experience this often develop toxic perfectionism as they grow older. Under this pressure it’s easy to fall into a state of frustration when you don’t achieve what you expected. This will prevent you from continuing with the task and you’ll end up blocking yourself.
- Traumatic experiences: Sometime paralysis is the consequence of having suffered bullying, abandonment, or physical or psychological abuse at home or at school. People in this situation usually live in a state of constant vigilance that can make them freeze up in the face of what they consider a threat. For this reason, it’s common to find adults who, when faced with situations that remind them of their trauma, end up paralyzed and unable to move forward. Their emotions prevail over the arguments of reason.
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Mental blocks cause much suffering, not only because of the symptoms they bring (anxiety, negative thoughts towards oneself, procrastination, etc.), but also because of their negative consequences, such as causing one to abandon activities, or lose work or social opportunities.
Mental blocks are an opportunity for growth
A mental block is a warning that the way we’re trying to face something is not the best one, because deep down we are having a feeling or thought that we’re not able to manage. What should we do, then, to overcome a mental block?
- Discover the root of the problem. Analyze the way you talk to yourself. Are you telling yourself that you’re not good enough? Are you demanding unrealistic perfection? Are you comparing yourself to others and always coming up short?
- Affirm yourself. Remember that negativity toward yourself is counterproductive. Repeat to yourself the kind of positive messages that you need to hear, that boost your self-esteem, and that help you value your abilities. It’s possible to be positive and realistic at the same time.
- Divide and conquer. Break down what you need to do into smaller goals that allow you to recognize and appreciate each goal you achieve. Sometimes the problem is setting your sights on too distant a goal. Dividing the task into achievable goals will motivate you by showing you that you are capable.
- Remember that this situation will pass. Being able to put a name to what is happening to you and seeing it for what it is will make it easier to remove the mental roadblocks that paralyze you.
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